Female migration

Convict transportation had brought more male convicts to NSW than females. By the 1820s there were almost four men to every woman in the colony.

The colony needed women - as workers, wives and mothers. Also, for many women in the UK migration was seen as an opportunity to change their fortunes - to escape poverty, find work and start a family.

So, from the 1830s the British government encouraged young, unmarried women to migrate to NSW. One of the ways they did this was by paying the costs of the women's voyage.

Female Immigration Depot: 1848-87

By the 1840s and 1850s thousands of young women were migrating to NSW. When they first arrived in Sydney they needed a safe and secure place to live. From 1848 they stayed at the Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks.

The barracks - seen in this watercolour from the 1840s - had originally been built as accomodation for male convicts.

But convict transportation to NSW stopped in 1840, and by 1848 the last male convicts were moved out and sent to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.

Newly arrived female migrants would stay at the depot until they were hired out for work, or a member of their family who already lived in the colony came to pick them up.

Between 1848-1887 about 40,000 women stayed at the depot, some with their children. There were two main categories:


The cost of their journey was paid by the government; some also received extra support, such as clothes.


The cost of the journey was paid by the migrant, their family, or a friend living in the colony.

These contemporary artworks were created by students from Loreto Kirribilli (year 5), inspired by the stories, experiences and archaeology of the women who stayed at the Immigration Depot.

Jump to our Creative Arts activity - 'Memory & Legacy' at the bottom of this page.

First arrivals: Irish orphans

The first group of assisted female migrants to stay at the depot were teenage girls from Ireland - they arrived in October 1848.

During the 1840s Ireland was experiencing a terrible famine because food crops (such as the potato) were failing.

Potatoes were a vital source of food and without them many people did not have enough to eat.

The famine lasted from 1845 to 1851 and it was known in Ireland as an Gorta Mór, which means ‘the great hunger’.

At least one million people died, over a million emigrated (to places like America and Australia) and thousands more took shelter in workhouses.

To provide some relief, an emigration scheme was organised (known as the Earl Grey scheme) which paid for 4114 young girls and women to travel to Australia.

It lasted from 1848 to 1850 and more than half of them came to NSW. The rest went to Adelaide and Port Phillip (which became part of the Colony of Victoria in 1851)

The girls who were selected to emigrate had been living in workhouses, so this was an opportunity for them to escape the terrible conditions. Many had no parents, or their parents were unable to care for them, so they were known as orphans.

Some of the girls were as young as 13 years old.

Servant's box: A treasured possession

Because they were coming from poverty the girls had very few, if any, personal possessions. The Earl Grey scheme provided each of them with a wooden servant's box; a common piece of luggage for servants during the 19th century.

Each of the boxes contained items such as:

  • new clothes (such as dresses, a warm cloak, mitts and stocking)
  • soap and towels
  • a comb and a hair brush
  • a Bible and prayer book
  • new shoes

The new clothes were essential. They kept the girls warm and in good health throughout the journey and would also help them find work and start their new life in Australia.

Looking after their box and its contents was important and something that many of the girls took great pride in.

During the voyage the girls unpacked their boxes every few weeks to clean, brush and air the contents to ensure there was no water damage or mildew.

They could also take the opportunity to wash and change the outfit they were wearing.

When they were hired by an employer they took their servant's box with them. Living in a new house, possibly with other servants coming and going, being able to lock their box and keep the key secure would have been important.

What can we learn from archaeology?

Research from books, letters and diaries tells us that the girls' dresses were made out of calico (an inexpensive fabric) that was most probably the colour purple.

Archaeologists have found lots of pieces of this material under the floorboards of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum (where the Immigration Depot once was).

Because these pieces of fabric have different patterns on them, it tells us that what the girls' dresses looked like changed over time, even though they probably stayed the same colour.


It took four to five months to sail to Australia.

On the voyage, the girls were looked after by an older female matron. There was also a surgeon-superintendent on the ship who was responsible for the health of all the passengers.

A schoolmaster usually ran school lessons while at sea and focused on reading, writing, arithmethic and grammar.

For example, the schoolmaster on the ship John Knox was Thomas Jones; his wife Eliza was the ship's matron. Thomas and Eliza were also migrating to NSW (with their younger daughter).

As the schoolmaster, Thomas had to manage over 270 teenage girls.

Some worked hard and improved their spelling, writing and reading, while others hid below decks to avoid going to class!1

In the evening the girls entertained themselves by singing, dancing, reading or sewing clothes.

Depending on the weather, most days on board the ship would have followed a set schedule.

This was the schedule on the Thomas Arbuthnot which sailed to NSW in 1850:2

wash and dress
sweep and clean sleeping areas
school classes
dinner (as the midday meal was called)
tea (the evening meal)
sweep and clean sleeping areas
bed and lights out
 Emigrant ship, between decks (detail)

Life on board an emigrant ship

If the weather was fine the girls could spend time in the fresh air. But if it was bad they would have to stay below decks were there wasn't much room.

Q. Look closely at this illustration - what can you see happening?

Q. What do you think it would have been like to have to spend days below deck, during bad weather?

Life at the Immigration Depot

Sometimes there were hundreds of girls staying at the depot. The depot matron kept a close eye on them. She made sure they washed their clothes and kept their sleeping areas tidy.

Keeping the rooms clean was important.

Rats lived under the floorboards. They stole scraps of food to eat and pieces of clothing to make their nests.

While staying at the depot the girls were expected to behave and follow the rules.

If not they might have had their ration of tea and sugar stopped, or possibly placed into 'solitary confinement' - which meant being moved to sleep in a seperate room, by themself, with reduced food rations.3

What food did the girls eat at the depot?

Every few days there would be a delivery of fresh meat, vegetables and bread.

The meat and vegetables could be boiled to make a soup, or roasted. 'Dripping' (the fat from the cooked meat) was used to spread on the bread.

At meal time the girls all ate together.

Finding a job

Each week, private citizens came to the depot to hire the girls as 'indentured apprentices'.

This meant that they entered into an agreement with their new employer, who paid them a set amount of money in return for their labour.

These 'indentures' could be cancelled for bad behaviour, or if both parties agreed.

The girls were mostly employed as:

  • house maids
  • kitchen hands
  • nursemaids (helping mothers from better off families)

Because many of them were not very experienced, the employer was also supposed to train them in a skill, either domestic work (around the house) or farm work, like milking cows and making butter.

Sometimes girls who emigrated as part of the Earl Grey scheme had to wait for months at the depot before finding a job.

For example, some who arrived on the Digby in April 1849 were still at the depot in September, waiting hopefully to find work.

But in other cases they were hired quite quickly after they arrived.

On July 29, 1851, the ship Tippoo Saib docked in Sydney with over 300 female migrants.

Ten days later a newspaper report stated that:

the greater part of them...have been hired.

The work was usually low paid, but some girls would have been able to save small amounts of money.

As domestic servants the girls would have lived with the family who had hired them.

Some stayed in Sydney, but many travelled out to country areas - such as Ellen Connnell, who's indenture is below.

In this artwork you can see young female migrants sitting in the 'hiring room' at the Immigration Depot. They are waiting to be interviewed for a job.

Apprenticeship indenture for Ellen Connell, from Ireland.

This document was created on July 29, 1850 and contains useful information (evidence) which tells us a little about her story, including:

Which ship she had arrived on: Lismoyne
Who she was employed by: John McPhillamy (who lived in Bathurst)
Her job: general house servant
How much she was paid: £7 for the first 12 months (£8 for the second)

Source: NSW State Archives: NRS 5239 [9/6194] 50/1738

Life in Australia

Migration gave these young girls a new life in Australia, with opportunities to find work, maybe get married and start a family.

However adjusting to their new life, in a new country, was often difficult. Some people in the colony did not want them to be here because they thought they had no skills, or because they practised a different form of religion.

Despite this, many of these inspirational young women lived long and successful lives. They worked hard, ran businesses, married and raised families. As a result they have thousands of descendants alive today all around Australia.

Rose McGee (pictured below on the left) migrated from Ireland to Australia when she was 15 years old.

She arrived in 1859, so was not one of the 4114 orphans who came out as part of the Earl Grey scheme. But Rose would have migrated for the same opportunities.

In 2016 her great-granddaughter Barbara (holding the photo) visited the Hyde Park Barracks where Rose had stayed nearly 160 years before, when it was the Immigration Depot.



  1. State Archives NSW: 9/6194: Ships’ Papers, John Knox 1850. Letter by Thomas Jones, schoolmaster on board the John Knox emigrant ship, to the Commissioners of Emigration in NSW. The John Knox arrived in Sydney in April 1850 carrying 279 Irish orphans.
  2. The Daily News, Wednesday, November 6, 1850: An account of the daily routine by Charles Strutt, surgeon-superintendent on board the Thomas Arbuthnot which arrived in Sydney, February 1850, carrying 194 Irish orphans
  3. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 25 October 1851, p2.
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Edward Washington

Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he was awarded the Ruth Pope research scholarship and travelled to the UK to investigate - Conflict, contested history and memory, and reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland, through museums, heritage sites and community projects.He is passionate about using objects, place-based learning and personal stories to engage students in history and archaeology.

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